Cherie Priest grew up and spent a good part of her life in the southeastern US, and is now a novelist living in the Pacific Northwest. Her latest works are set in The Clockwork Century, a steampunk alt-history timeline in which the Civil War is still grinding on in 1880.
1) What were your experiences of Civil War remembrance growing up, if any?
It’s hard to say, because many of my formative years were spent in Florida, which didn’t see oodles of action during the primary fray. In fact, much of the Deep South (proper) does not consider Florida a true “Southern” state … which native Floridians, especially those in northern or rural areas of the state, take quite personally. I’m a Gulf Coast girl with south-central Florida ties myself, and I typically heard the whole rigmarole of Rebel Pride — constant reminders that the Yankees never took Tallahassee, and how and why; as well as the spiel about how north Florida’s ranchers kept the Confederacy in beef and salt, and was one of its primary providers of food goods. And of course, I had Florida relatives who fought for the South in the war.
So it was kind of strange for me to later wind up in Tennessee, where Florida was utterly discounted — and I was occasionally mocked for identifying even casually as a southerner. As if Florida didn’t secede from the Union … um … four months before Tennessee could be bothered to get on board.
2) Why did you decide that the Civil War needed to be an integral part of The Clockwork Century?
In short, I needed a very good reason why the America of 1880 would have (a). looked very different than it did in real life, and (b). was possessed of technology far superior to what actually existed.
To make a short story slightly longer, sometime around 2005 I was poking around on the internet and I saw some people having a conversation about steampunk. To oversimplify that conversation, it could be summed up with the attitude that true steampunk could not be accomplished in an American setting, and ought to only occur in England if it could hope to be authentic. Because heaven knew that nothing was going on in America back in the 19th century, anyway. Bunch of farmers and prairie people. Bah.
My eyebrows lifted, as did my sense of indignation. I’ve always viewed steampunk as the science fiction of a future that never happened — a presentation of anachronistic technology adapted for a previous era; and nothing ever drives technology quite like war, am I right? Because it’s not like America didn’t have this EPIC CIVIL WAR going on over here, or anything. And if you get poking around, it’s easy to turn up the devices that were being patented and proposed (toward the end of the war especially), vehicles of war and engines of destruction that appear tailor-made for a steampunk universe.
The more I thought about it, the more perfect it seemed. What if the war had gone on longer? Much longer–say, another fifteen years? What if those devices had been funded, and created, and set into the theater of war? And on top of those devices, what next? Furthermore, it was worth considering the kind of tech that would’ve been drawn along in the wake of these terrible machines.
At any rate, it is true that the first novel in the Clockwork Century, BONESHAKER, is set in the far Pacific Northwest — where there wasn’t much war action to be found; but the war looms large in the background. For example, one of the most important airships in the region is a Confederate war dirigible that was stolen (and is presently piloted) by a powerful runaway slave. And much of the PNW economy is driven by exports and imports that come and go from the eastern fronts. Rather a lot of the setting’s more insidious technology is war technology that’s been hauled west, and repurposed.
3) What do you feel is your biggest concern, as a fiction author, when writing a fictionalized version of the Civil War?
My biggest concern is that people will read these stories and take the world setting entirely too seriously. I don’t mind if my tales stir up rolled eyes and snorts of derision from the historians; I’m not a stitch-counter, and although I’m generally well informed with regards to the Late Unpleasantness, I’m no expert. I’m absolutely stealing and repurposing historic figures and events, and the overwhelming fact is that I’m fictionalizing them.
I keep joking that I need to create a post on the Clockwork Century’s website called, “YES, I KNOW.” And on that post I could mention that YES, I KNOW the war didn’t go on for 20 years. YES, I KNOW that oil wasn’t discovered at Spindletop (Texas) in the 1850s. YES, I KNOW that the Klondike gold rush was underway in the 1870s not the 1850s. YES, I KNOW that neither the Union nor the Confederacy deployed battle mechs. Et cetera. So maybe people will quit sending me letters telling me how wrong I am about everything.
But this having been said, I would like for the general world-view to appear cohesive and at least marginally credible, despite some of the incredible things that occur therein.
4) Belle Boyd, the Confederate spy, is the main character of your upcoming novel _Clementine_. What made you want to write Belle as part of The Clockwork Century?
Well, she’s one of the main characters (there are two main POVs). Poor Belle. I dressed up as her for Halloween one year, when I was about twelve years old, so I’ve been aware of her as a historic personality for many years; and I got thinking, as I was toying with my universe, about what would have happened to a woman like her if the war had played out in such a drawn out form.
By the end of the real life conflict, she was already too famous to be a spy anymore. Her romantic entanglements and marriages were big stories; and there was a not inconsiderable amount of tsk-tsking over her life choices. Everything I’ve ever read about her portrayed a capricious, impulsive, conniving teenage girl with a sharp mind and absolutely no fear.
So imagine this woman in her forties. Widow, divorcee, former actress, once-internationally-famous figure with essentially no income stream and a hard life behind her. What becomes of someone like this? What is she good at? Where might she go, and what choices might she be driven to out of desperation?
In CLEMENTINE I cut off her marriages at the Yankee navy boy, and I lend that tragic union more weight than it had in real life — she’s gently booted out of the espionage business and sent off on her own recognizance to find some other occupation or starve. Eventually, lacking any other prospects, she accepts a job offer from Allan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in Chicago. (Pinkerton himself was a Union spy during the war, and I liked the idea of these two old spies from different sides opting to work together when their services were no longer required by their governments.)
5) In your second book from Tor, _Wings To The Kingdom_, the Chickamauga battlefield, some attendant ghosts, and a famous spirit are all major players. Did you ever have a weird experience yourself on the battlefield?
I suppose that depends on your qualifications for “weird.” I never saw Old Green Eyes, I’m afraid; but yes, I’ve wandered the battlefield at night with friends (always in a respectful capacity — never as vandals or drunks, I assure both you and the noble dead). And the fog … dear God, the fog. Thicker than cannon smoke and immensely eerie. And if you’re standing inside it, it almost muffles everything around you — you can’t hear friends who are standing a few feet away, and you lose your sense of where you are.
I’ve heard rumors that when the fog is thickest, the cops won’t answer calls from the edge of the battlefield (where a subdivision backs up against it). Because the calls are all the same … people report hearing cries for help, and moans of pain, and the sound of gunfire.
But no, I’ve never experienced any of those things for myself.